Posted by: Alastair Rosie | July 13, 2012

A Magical Trip Back in TIme

Something a little different tonight, a book review. Enjoy!

Historical fiction is one of those genres that has to be done accurately or not at all. There are too many authors out there writing ‘historical fiction’ that should be re-categorised as ‘delusional fantasy’ because they don’t understand the time period, haven’t bothered researching it and wind up making it all up as they go along. Historical fiction can’t be written by the seat of your pants, you need to understand your world and be true to it.

It was with hesitation therefore that I picked up Manda Scott’s The Emperor’s Spy. Not because she writes bad historical fiction, but because she writes it so well I don’t want leave the world she’s created. I read her Dreaming Series a few years ago, which chronicled the life of one of my all time favourite heroines, Boudica and because of that I was reluctant to move on. But eventually I did and was reunited with Cunomar, Math and Cardoc from the Dreaming series and was drawn into the landscape of Roman Gaul, transported to Alexandria and finally back to Rome in time for the famous fire. Along the way I learned much about ancient Gaul, Egypt, Judea and Rome. She has an eye for detail that is staggering in its complexity. Her books need to be read two or three times over a number of months to pick up on things you’ve missed, and in that way Scott is in a class of her own. There are very few writers who drive me back to their books again and again just for the pleasure of reading something again. You get an eerie sense when reading Scott’s books that she really has been there before.

It’s for that reason I’ve often said that her work, along with certain other authors, should be used as secondary reading material in history classes. If you want to get teenagers interested in history, stop giving them dates and names they can’t pronounce and give them a good historical novel. Once their imaginations are fired up their brains will kick into gear and they’ll want to explore the era further.

With the Dreaming series she had little primary material to go on but using secondary material and no small amount of imagining, managed to create a believable fictional world that felt as if she had used her time machine to go back and interview principal characters. I’m sure she must have one tucked away in a shed somewhere. With The Emperor’s Spy she’s done much the same thing, introducing us to Jesus, or Justus, Saulos, known to us as the apostle Paul and Nero. Her rendering of the events in the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion will rattle some people, but in the style of a Dan Brown she’s certainly laid out how the myth of a mysterious resurrection might have occurred. Similarly, Saulos is portrayed as a psychopathic egomaniac determined to destroy Rome and Jerusalem in order to bring about a new theocracy.

The major protagonist, Pantera is one of my favourite characters because of his development throughout the story. He has a nobility about him that makes you wish he really had existed just the way he was portrayed. He is Nero’s spy, much against his will but to defy Nero is to invite death. It is Pantera’s task to track down the Apostate who wants to torch Rome and Jerusalem before he carries out his plan. Like with the last series you know how it ends but it’s a thrill to travel with characters through an ancient world. You almost feel part of them and that is the mark of a talented storyteller.

And at the end of the book, after those two words The End there was a surprise waiting for me. A short story titled The Last Roman that rewrites history as if Boudica triumphed against Suetonius and drove the legions from Britain. I met once again characters I’d met in the Dreaming series and found myself wondering, what if? I don’t think other reviewers have mentioned it, but for those of us who really wanted her to win she’s blessed us with The Last Roman. It’s a short story, simply written, and yet the alternative history shows how close we came to a totally different view of history. One where our ancestors forged their own identity instead of labouring under a Roman yoke for four hundred years. The short story is available in both the paperback and Kindle versions.

The Emperor’s Spy is one of the best novels I’ve read this year and I’m already looking forward to reading the next book in the series, as well as going back to the Dreaming series once more, just to greet old characters again. If you are interested in exploring her views further she provides a reading list at the end and the reasons she used those sources. She also tells us where she has changed something to suit the story. It’s up to you if you want to read this bit first or start at the beginning.

Gladly given five out of five.

Written by Alastair Rosie

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